Ancient Chinese generated various idioms regarding happiness, guided by different schools of thoughts. The Chinese characters for “happiness” are 喜 (xǐ, delighted), 福 (fú, bliss, good fortune), and 乐 (lè, joy, pleasure). It is perhaps 乐 that captures the contentment of life as a whole the most.


安居乐业 ān jū lè yè
Live in peace and work happily

This is the kind of happiness that Confucius(孔子) would want for everyone: people living in a stable, harmonious community and carry out their respective duties. This idiom first appeared in official and scholar Zhong Changtong’s (仲长统) essay from the late Eastern Han dynasty (25 – 220), a turbulent era(动荡时期,dòng dàng shí qī), discussing the decline and fall of great powers. According to Zhong, a good ruler should provide a stable environment for his subjects: “安居乐业,长养子孙,天下晏然,皆归心与我矣 (Citizens living in peace and working happily, fostering their offspring with safety and order under heaven; then they will all be devoted to you).”

rén mín ān jū lè yè
The people are making a good living and are contented, each in his station.

乐此不疲 lè cǐ bù pí
Enjoy something and never tire of it

As the proverb in English goes, find something you love to do, and you’ll never work a day in your life. This idiom describes just that. The chengyu originated from the diligent founding emperor of the Eastern Han, Liu Xiu (刘秀). Liu was always busy with state affairs(朝政,cháo zhèng) and often carried on discussions with his advisers deep into the night. His son worried about his health, but Liu told him that he never felt tired doing what he loves.

Tā xǐ huan yě wài tú bù, suī rán chī le bù shǎo kǔ, dàn réng rán lè cǐ bù pí 。
He loves hiking in the wild! Though he has been through some rough times, he never gets tired of it.

乐善好施 lè shàn hào shī
Happiness in doing good

This idiom literally translates to “enjoy doing good and love sharing”; advice we can all follow, especially during difficult times. The Book of Jin (《晋书》), a historical text(史书,shǐ shū) written in the seventh century, recorded the story of Sun Gui (孙晷), a figure known for generosity(慷慨,kāng kǎi) in his village: He would always share food and blankets with the old and the poor, and never turn away those in need.

One year, a particularly bad harvest(收成,shōu cheng) led the price of rice to rise, and some villagers went to Sun’s field to steal food. Sun spotted the culprits, but didn’t reveal himself. After the villagers left, Sun cut some more rice and took it to them as gifts. Touched(感动的,gǎn dòng de) and ashamed(惭愧的,cán kuì de), none of the villagers came to steal from Sun again.

tā shì wèi lè shàn hào shī de xiān sheng
He is a bounteous gentleman.

自得其乐 zì dé qí lè
Find amusement in one’s own way

Daoists(道家,dào jiā) love nature and find pleasure in personal life. This idiom originally came from a cheerful depiction of a pair of white-winged finches living in the desert from Retirement to the Countryside (《辍耕录》), a history book written by Tao Zongyi (陶宗仪) in the 14th century. The idiom describes a status of peace and fulfillment in the mind.

及时行乐 jí shí xíng lè
Enjoying the present

The phrase was originally found in the history text The Incidents of the Age of Xuanhe in the Song Dynasty (《大宋宣和遗事》): “Life is fleeting, like the glint of a white horse across a chink in the door; if you don’t seize the day, you’ll be left with nothing but regret in an old age (人生如白驹过隙,倘不及时行乐,则老大徒伤悲也。).” This idiom is used to remind us of the importance of living in the present.

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